Located near Gallup, New Mexico, in the Colorado Plateau, sits an isolated Native American village. The pueblo of Zuni is a 1300-year-old settlement comprised of indigenous people that organize themselves by the Ashiwi religion and consider themselves children of mother earth and owners of the Seven Golden Cities of Cíbola.
Today, the pueblo comprises approximately 12,500 residents, most of whom are retired or very young. Like many Native American villages, adults move away to the big cities for higher education and lucrative jobs. There is not much of an economy within the pueblo unless you make jewelry, pottery, or other arts and crafts to sell at the trading posts. What the Zunis have to their advantage is a deeply rooted history and passion for sharing with the outside world. Recently, few locals have taken the initiative to create structured programs so that visitors can learn about Zuni history, culture, and cuisine.
How Kenny Bowekaty Is Increasing Interest in Zuni Culture
Kenny Bowekaty grew up in a sparsely populated area south of Hawikku, ruins of one of the largest Zuni settlements from the 1400s. While playing in his backyard, he developed an interest in archeology. The tribe supported his research and education at Stanford University. He returned to the pueblo to develop both the Zuni Archeological Program and the Zuni Preservation Heritage Department, and consult the tribe with renovations and infrastructure.
“Archelogy and development have helped me look toward the ground to understand how deep our history is,” says Bowekaty, who has spent the last ten years developing attractions at Zuni pueblo. “When I got here, the tourism industry was just an enterprise that was not serving any purpose and lacking historical perspective. Now, tourism has elevated to one of the main sources of our trierarchy revenue, meaning the funds don’t come from federal agencies. It is brought in by people visiting us from all over the world.” The money generated goes toward the tribe’s general-purpose budget, which is then allocated to the library, schools, and law enforcement, and benefits the tribe in many ways.
Bowekaty helped enhance the visitor experience using his modern formats and ideas. He remodeled the Zuni Visitor Center, the main platform that connects all tourism-related activities at the pueblo. He added contemporary exhibits with interpretative narration at the center’s museum, developed brochures and guided tours, and brought on other guides and partners from the community. You can now book a tour to learn about cosmology, visit the ancestral Village of the Great Kivas, go inside the Spanish-built Mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe, hike at archeological ruins of Hawikku, do an art stroll visiting artist homes and studios, and much more.
Though tourism came to a stall for over a year, Bowekaty used this time to create proposals for more programs that would help share the Zuni history and culture with the outside world. “During the pandemic, when the tribe shut down completely, we did a lot of social media and email marketing to attract people to join our virtual tours,” adds Bowekaty. The pueblo partnered with archeological societies and star party groups to continue to present Zuni’s tourism. The tribe is working on developing new campgrounds, RV grounds, and a motel.
How Ava Hannaweeke Is Preserving Traditional Zuni Bread
Meanwhile, other members of the community started discovering new sources of income. Home chef Ava Hannaweeke started cooking on the weekends as a hobby while she worked in Gallup. But once she moved back to the pueblo, she traded her day job for professional catering.
“Before COVID-19, anyone who had a birthday, anniversary, or graduation at the pueblo called me to cater their party. I cooked Mexican, American, and Native American dishes. But then everything was canceled, and we went into lockdown,” recalls Hannaweeke.
Like many Americans who were stuck at home during the pandemic, Hannaweeke sought solace in baking bread. But hers is a typical Zuni bread, called hebogo mula, that is a dying tradition. Shaped like horns and baked in large outdoor clay ovens called horno, the bread is similar to sourdough. Many families at Zuni have these large ovens in their backyards, but very few use them as it is messy, labor-intensive, and time-consuming.
“We first have to gather firewood from the forest to heat the ovens,” explains Hannaweeke. She uses cedar branches to clean the ashes from the previous baking cycle and places up to a hundred handmade loaves into the hot surface. She then watches them rise over a couple of hours, cools them, and places them in flour cloth sacks that most people discard. She then takes the loaves to the four grocery stores located in the pueblo, where they are then sold.
During the lockdown, Hannaweeke set up her van in the parking lot of the tribal building, where people could buy her bread curbside. She baked 3-4 times a week and would always sell out.
“People from other neighboring tribes also wanted my Zuni bread and would sometimes drive 5-6 hours for it,” she says. “We all love fresh homemade bread, especially during difficult times!”
Hannaweeke says her access to supplies was also limited, and often, her niece would have to ship her bags of flour from Albuquerque. Hannaweeke has partnered with the Zuni Visitor Center to offer hands-on Zuni bread baking lessons to visitors. You can spend the day at Hannaweeke’s home, learning about the Zuni way of life.
How Celia Tsabetsaye’s Restaurant Is Making a Difference
78-year-old Celia Tsabetsaye saw a need to feed the tourists and visitors when they came to the pueblo for day trips. There were no traditional restaurants at the reservation (except for a few fast food and grocery shops), so she opened The Village Bistro, where she takes reservations for meals and hosts individual and group cooking classes.
“I worked and lived in Washington D.C. for my entire working career, but after retiring, I wanted to return home to my land and renovate my family home,” says Tsabetsaye. She converted her father’s house into a modern restaurant that seats about 24 people. Here she serves comfort foods with a Native American twist, such as atole, burritos, blue corn pancakes, Zuni nachos, green chili cheeseburgers, tamale with blue corn, and homemade red and green chili.
“I saw that people were interested in learning about our traditional food. Everything at my restaurant is made-to-order using native ingredients that I grew up eating,” Tsabetsaye adds. While demonstrating her ancestral cooking techniques, she also enjoys sharing stories about her life working at the Bureau of Indian Affairs as an influential Native American woman.